Photo: COTU boss Francis Atwoli (centre) with unidentified friends during their formative years, watu hutoka mbali
By Silas Gisiora Nyanchwani
After high school, having confirmed that I will not join Medical School, I so bad wanted to be a newspaper columnist. When I told my people, they thought I was a dreamer, but they gave me the benefit of doubt.
I spent the gap years, back then you waited for nearly two years, for those joining the University of Nairobi (much shorter those joining other universities that had an earlier opening date), reading newspapers and magazines like crazy, every day asking myself if I will ever see my byline on a story. It was like a drug.
A few months before joining university, armed with the simple typing skills learned in a computer college in Kibera (where I had the classmate with the best ass to date, Lilian, where are you?), reckless idealism of a 20-year-old, and beginner’s luck, I started shooting emails to editors, mostly “Letters to the Editors”. First, I started with Pulse Magazine, where I became a regular. I used to read newspapers cover to cover and I knew what went into each page.
There was a section in Pulse called “I Want to Know” where people asked a set of silly “Hits a Blunt” type of questions like, “If a blackbox is indestructible how come an airplane is not made from the material that makes the blackbox?” Or, “How do you write zero in Roman numbers?”. I started shooting my questions, and before long, I was contributing most of the columns to that section. With the publication of what I sent weekly, I went back to the cyber, with a new set of questions, some stolen from the internet, but most of them, from my sick mind. I never received a coin from my labour.
Soon, the Saturday Nation’s Saturday’s Magazine, back then one of the best exports of magazine journalism in Kenya, if not Africa, had a column called “By The Way”, that run beside or under Oyunga Pala’s Magnum Opus column that pretty much defined the social and cultural makeup of Kenya in the 2000s. The By The Way Column, was for anyone who wanted to write anything, but The Nation never used to pay for it.
After my paragraph-long letters to the editor of Pulse, and the 10 or so questions, in the humour column, I switched my attention to the Saturday Magazine and wanted so bad to be published in that By The Way Column. I had tried to send a few pieces to Nation, and most of them had not gone through. Nation is not a joke.
Now. Most women have persistently asked me if I am bitter with women because some woman fucked up my life. I often laugh at this, because far as I can remember, I have been very consistent in pointing out ugaidi ya wasichana of Nairobi. And no woman has ever broken my heart.
When I was 21, the column that got me started in this business was a ‘sweet accident of fate’.
One afternoon, I sat in cyber in Ayany, Kibera, with a hand- typed composition, titled, “What Do Women Want?”. It was a rant of a man who has done everything to a woman, and in the end got absolutely nothing in return. One good line I remember from the article was how you go on a date with a woman, who knows how the weather looks like but decides to freeze-and-shine, only for her to ask for your jacket later and chivalry demands that you give her the jacket. So as far back then, I was bitching about hawa magaidi wa Nairobi.
Anyway, to make a long story longer, I sent the article to the ‘By The Way’ Column. I wrote the article from my heart, and I felt that it was tight. The column demanded 700 words, but my composition was about 900 words, I hoped the editor would slice it down appropriately. Come Saturday, I went to buy a newspaper and the first thing I checked was the By the Way column and it was not my column. I felt so disappointed. Defeated. I wept and felt completely worthless. Broken. If that column had not been published, nothing ever will. I hated The Nation.
I decided to read Oyunga Pala’s column as a consolation as it was the best thing every week. I read the headline, and the headline promised fireworks. What I saw next, made me jump out of my skin…
SILAS NYANCHWANI has done everything for women and got nothing in return…
Impossible. I was confused. That my column had gone straight to my high school idol’s space. I was confused. I read it there, from start to finish, and save for the headline, the editor, had not moved even a comma on my piece.
That is like being a 16-year-old footballer making his debut and you are sent to play in Messi’s place and you end up scoring the winner.
And that is how I got officially started. I thought I was supposed to pay the Nation for having published me. A month and half later I joined campus and by some accident of fate one of my classmates had already published his cartoons with the Nation and told me I should have been paid for my column. And two months later, I went to Nation picked my cheque, and I have never looked back. For more than 13 years, I have earned my bread writing. Used to be good, until Jubilee government fucked up everything.
The reason for this long treatise is that without the initial free labour, where we were paid by exposure, maybe I would never have made it this far. I remember back in campus, I did encourage a few of my friends to start writing. And all of them utilized the free spaces that existed then to cut their teeth. Nation had another platform called Zuqka, the Standard had other spaces too, including “Letters to the Editors”. We wrote like our lives depended on it. Some of the stuff we wrote was occasionally rejected as plagiarized or the editors would see our university mail and assume that we were professors and used to transfer our letters to editorial pages and it was flattering to see, “Silas Nyanchwani teaches or is a professor of Literature at the University of Nairobi” when I was merely a first year paralyzed by the sight of my crush. That girl S.
Lately. I have seen a growing movement that is opposed to unpaid internships. It is quite a vocal movement and I commend them for their courage. And we have to try and change and ensure that interns are paid, and everybody gets paid what commensurate their efforts.
But there is one fatally flawed problem with this black &white approach. One, it is mostly championed by kids from middle-class families, who at the end of the day have a roof over their head and to some of them, the jobs are not life and death. Secondly, it is born of an anti-capitalist sentiment that is justified to a great extent. But their biggest undoing is not understanding how systems work.
I will be brief. Companies do exploit people. But if you have lost your job due to Covid-19, you will appreciate whatever little you used to get from your employer. Employers exist for the sole purpose to utilize human resources to generate profits for the company’s owners and shareholders.
It takes massive resources to build a company into a behemoth that employs people. Moving all the pieces until a company becomes profitable relies on so many things; the business environment, taxation policies, what is happening around the world et cetera. One move like change of prices of oil can fuck up an entire system and people end up losing jobs.
So, often when companies opt for cheap labour, or use interns for specific periods of time, there are economic factors besides the assumed greed of capitalists. And sometimes, they are doing you a favour by granting that internship, to aid you with graduation, or some useful experience that will be handy in the future. And most of these jobs are on a take it or leave it basis. When you get in, you already know what to expect.
I have seen comedians insult Churchill claiming that he exploits them and I wonder, do they know what it takes to have a consistent brand that rules for 12 years counting. There have been successful graduates of Churchill Live and younger comedians can learn from them. In this life if someone like Churchill gives you a platform, thank your stars, work so hard, shine and venture out. I will be happier if they were paid better or treated better in the event, they feel slighted. But that means we will never have the next Profesa Hamo, or Eric Omondi, or Mc Jessy.
And that is it with creative stuff.
My advice (take or leave it), if you are a creative, writer, painter, poet, sculptor, designer, and all, if someone tells you they want to pay you by exposure and you are starting off, do the job, if you have nothing to lose. You can always negotiate something for commuting and food. But even if there isn’t, just do it on two conditions: You are getting meaningful experience, you are able to network, and you can leave a lasting impression.
Life is a series of beautiful accidents. Some of the best gigs I have landed came out a random kind act I did long time ago and forgot about.
Money is important. But a good attitude, persistency and patience can open bigger doors and earn one better perks. It not that we suffered, and we wish the next person to suffer to prove a point. It is not fetishization of suffering. It is understanding how pieces move in the chess of life.
I do respect those who have the courage to say NO. Because in the last 4 years, we have run a startup. We do pay something little for those we work with. Many a time, we don’t honour word, and often, some even volunteer. But those who volunteer are always the first we think about when some opportunity comes up and we forward their names and I am grateful that through our small acts, we have opened the doors for some. If they came with the attitude that they have to be paid in order to work, many opportunities would have by-passed them.
Often, I approach some people here and they tell me our rates are so low, and insulting and I always respect their NO. And admire the courage, and wish them well.
But for you, young person, starting up, my advice (take or leave it), if you have nothing to lose, exposure is not a bad thing. Just know how to twist the arrangement to your advantage. Now, or in the future.